My last month of the millennium began with a wonderful spectacle of civil disobedience, inaugurating a theatrical festival that got almost no preopening publicity but nevertheless deserves more attention than most of what passes for news in this city. Millennium's Neighborhood (Not a Celebration of the Malling of New York) was the brainchild of the anticonsumerist preacher, performance artist and social activist Reverend Billy (aka Bill Talen). It was conceived as an alternative to the Times Square, Disney-led millennial celebration and organized around the activities of many of New York's most provocative prankster artists. Current plans are to repeat it annually.
Its inaugural "permitless parade" was led by two men bearing aluminum crucifixes with large Mickey and Minnie Mouse dolls duct-taped to them and by Reverend Billy (who has been arrested several times for his "stop-shopping actions" in the Times Square Disney Store). The procession started at the Charas Community Center at 605 E. 9th St. (formerly P.S. 64) that New York City is trying to sell for luxury development, and it ended at Judson Memorial Church, the renowned birthplace of alternative theater and dance in the 1960s, which has recently been reclaiming its activist heritage under the leadership of Pastor Peter Laarman. Hard on the heels of the extremely galvanizing WTO protests in Seattle, Judson played host for seven evenings to an astonishing array of performances by actors, singers, musicians, poets, filmmakers and others sympathetic to the festival's causes?which were, chiefly, battling the encroachment of corporate monoculture in New York, and reclaiming "contested and surveiled public spaces" in the city (Talen's words).
You can't go anywhere nowadays without this "contested" reality smacking you in the face. The day before the festival, for instance, I went to get coffee on the first floor of Hunter College, where I teach, and discovered that the quirky little concession stand there I'd been patronizing for years had become a Starbucks. More than 300 people turned out at Charas on Dec. 4, marching around Tompkins Square Park and then across to Washington Square through Astor Pl. (where there are now three?count 'em?Starbuckses, including the one inside Barnes & Noble). The crowd included some two dozen "Santarchists" (a troupe of dancing Santas opposed to the commercialization of Christmas, I was told), the Hungry Marching Band, a woman dressed as a giant fly and scores of other people in fabulous costumes. A cordon of NYPD infantry with paddy wagons accompanied, insisted we stay on the sidewalks, then blocked the streets themselves. According to the organizers, more than 1200 people came through Judson on that first night alone.
It's impossible to do justice to the full range of subsequent performances. The actions and pranks included: group addresses to the cameras disguised as street lamps in Washington Square Park, led by The Surveillance Camera Players; the ritual defacing of a Docker's billboard; and a walking tour of the Astor Pl. Starbucks "cluster" led by Megan Wolff, who discussed company practices in front of customers in the manner of a genial, self-appointed docent.
Some highpoints of the evenings were: videotapes of the pranks; smart and sassy between-the-acts patter by Billy's cohost, Reno; a wonderfully obscene mock-fashion show called Fur, Fabulous Fur by Mr. Tim and Rae C. Wright (who wore a collar supposedly made from "Two-socks," the wolf in Dances With Wolves); and extravagantly corny singing by the drag queen Ruby Rims. A short play by Juliana Francis called Box, performed by Funda Duyal and directed by Tony Torn, was quietly and subtly brilliant: a scantily clad female sex worker behind a plexiglas panel with a phone performed for unseen customers and also engaged in mundane activities that made her seem, alternately, sweetly accommodating and excruciatingly lonely.
Most unforgettable of all, for me, was a presentation by the human rights activist Charley Kernaghan, best known for exposing the Central American sweatshops that embarrassed Kathy Lee Gifford last year. Kernaghan, who had just arrived from Seattle, showed photos and spoke for nearly 45 minutes about the awful details of worker cruelty and factory enslavement he had witnessed and documented in Honduras, El Salvador, China and elsewhere, in factories contracted by Nike, Liz Claiborne, Disney, Wal-Mart (which owns the Kathy Lee label) and other huge multinationals. When he finished, the spectators were left in a righteous rage, their hearts pumping fast, their minds filled with readiness to change their behavior, maybe even engage their consumption-frenzied friends and families in meaningful debate, yes, in the middle of a boom-time December. It was an extraordinary moment, and a stark reminder to all theater people that the most powerful political theater in the info age begins and ends with the persuasive force of pure, accurate information and the spectacle of real risk-taking.
Just as Millennium's Neighborhood used theater to cut through the leveling fog of deliberate media obtuseness and complacency regarding anything that seriously questions corporate power, Maria Irene Fornes' Enter the Night, the second production in Signature Theater's all-Fornes season, used it to cut to the root of what is important, and almost always missing, in new drama: strangeness. (I say "new" because the play, written in 1993, has never been done in New York before.) When produced well?that is, with a sure-handed tonal sense and an eye toward preserving her essential ambiguities?a Fornes work invariably leaves you feeling you have come upon a fascinating object that you can't quite define, even though it seems perfectly lucid and straightforward. This is the feeling many people take away from first experiences of Beckett and early Shepard, and it was sorely missing from David Esbjornson's normalizing production of Fornes' Mud at Signature earlier this fall.
Sonja Moser's production of Enter the Night, by contrast, is an exquisitely unclassifiable animal. This is an odd play even by Fornes' standards, a slow, contemplative and sometimes lugubrious encounter of three friends, each of whom is confronting death in a different way. Paula (Barbara Tarbuck) has a serious heart ailment requiring medication, Jack (Dallas Roberts) is mourning the death of his lover from AIDS and Tressa (Rebecca Harris) is a nurse who ministers to the dying. They meet in Tressa's large urban loft apartment, where Jack may or may not also live and where Paula is a guest, and share both heartbreakingly direct talk and elaborate theatrical games. One purpose of the games seems to be the same as that of the direct talk: to fathom their strong and ambiguous but possibly unfathomable connections?and also, perhaps, to remind them why life is still more compelling than its opposite.
In her inimitable fashion, Fornes never fully clarifies exactly what these people's relationships are, either to one another or to the theatrics. Only tantalizing factual tidbits and snatches are offered. Tressa seems attracted to Paula at first, for instance, but Paula mentions a husband back on her farm and seems securely heterosexual. Later, Jack and Tressa beautifully enact the death scene from D.W. Griffiths' silent classic Broken Blossoms as if it were a love scene, which seems to make Paula momentarily jealous. Meanwhile, Jack?whom Roberts plays as extremely fey, with enormously energetic, boyish bounciness that would be annoying if it weren't so steeped in real feeling for the women?has written a play that is absurdly naive and perfunctory (he says he's currently working as an assistant stage manager). And the women gush about how beautiful this text is, even though farm girl Paula, for one, seems much more urbane than in her other opinions: "When we're young we pretend we want to be artists. But all we're interested in is seduction."
Among Fornes' many gifts is a knack for picking up on the quiet insanity and heartbreak behind seemingly simple and guileless talk. Her very straightforwardness can be unnerving because, with it, her people serve up their hearts to each other on platters, then count on cruelly truthful theatrical rituals to validate their offerings. Christine Jones' stark, cavernous, somewhat dispiriting apartment set is, oddly enough, a fitting container for this dynamic. Its very clunkiness?doorways without molding, for instance, that look like horizontal graves?creates an impression of life as a sinkhole or drain for exuberance and joy that must be constantly fought against with beauty and love.
I do have a few quibbles. The show's first 15 minutes or so are too sleepy and indolent to keep many spectators from nodding, and a culminating image of a shirtless, blood-smeared Jack in a Pieta tableau is much too heavy-handed for me, especially after the subtlety of so much else. Still, Moser (a Columbia University MFA student, according to her bio) has shaped the rhythms and tones of this peculiar, fragile world with remarkable confidence, and all three actors have created people whose likable complexity more than repays the audience's frustrations with the unexplained. In the difficult arena of Fornes production, this qualifies as a triumph.
Signature Theater, 555 W. 42nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 244-PLAY, through Dec. 19.
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